Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American philosopher, lecturer and essayist, once said, “go often to the house of thy friend, for weeds choke the unused path”. That statement says a lot about how cricket fans in South Africa are or not feeling about the Proteas at the moment.
First, let’s get the definitive out of the way. South Africa choked under pressure. Trying to avoid that nasty word would be pointless and a little laughable considering how obvious the situation is before us. We bowled very well and chasing an extremely gettable total, lost our way. Credit should go to New Zealand for digging into that fear and extracting just enough self-doubt to allow South Africa to self-destruct, but man for man, this was a game that should have been won but due to the pressure involved, it didn’t happen. South Africa’s record in World Cup knock-out matches now reads as follows: played six, lost six. That statistic alone tells the story, which goes back all the way to 1992. Irony is deepened as Allan Donald, one of the men at the crease come the conclusion of the semi-final in 1999, is New Zealand’s bowling coach.
Pat Symcox, the former off-spinner and an often outspoken character within South African cricket, was quoted on cricinfo.com as saying that domestic cricket in the republic doesn’t produce enough pressure situations for our players to be ready when they make the step up to international level. With all respect to Symcox, who never let his country down when it came to giving his all on the field, that is nonsense. There are many close games every year on the domestic circuit and comparing domestic cricket to international cricket goes towards an apples and oranges argument. The two, while the same, are very, very different. As a former selector, he should know better.
The only way South Africa are going to get past the hoodoo that is the World Cup knock-out match is firstly by admitting the problem exists and secondly by winning a knock-out match. We will have to wait four more years till we have another chance but once that day comes, the spell will be broken. Gerald Majola, CEO of Cricket South Africa, said” “We’ve always had this chokers tag with us; unfortunately we’ve allowed it to stick. We haven’t applied ourselves … we have to accept the problem and then deal with it.” Majola is correct and attempting to avoid the issue will only compound the problem. Since 1992 South Africa has dismissed or ignored or avoided the suggestion that the Proteas suffer when in pressure situations and every time that has proved true, it has only served to resonate that truth even more loudly. With this latest loss, the legacy of cracking under pressure has just been compounded, so by the time the next World Cup rolls round in Australia and New Zealand, it will be a near noose around our cricketers’ necks.
That isn’t to say the selectors didn’t try to circumvent this situation from happening. By choosing 11 World Cup debutantes, they unintentionally, or more likely intentionally, attempted to choose a side not weighed down by the expectations of past tournaments and in doing so, shed the legacy of the past. It was a fair idea, and certainly worth a try but the loss to New Zealand clearly defines our inability to win in a knock-out match as just not a problem with a specific group of players but a problem that lies in South Africa’s cricketing culture. As I’ve said, it’s got nothing to do with the domestic game but more to do with our national psyche as South Africans.
We tend to be more self-conscious and aware of our surroundings due to the nature of our past. The Soccer World Cup last year was only the latest step for a nation incrementally coming to terms with its abhorrent and horrifying history. We are still a long way off from coming to terms with who we are as South Africans, on all sides of the racial and economic spectrum, which has proven to be the most damning of sins committed by the former apartheid regime.
With all this being said, to rile up in anger and disappointment is not what this team deserves. Yes, they didn’t achieve what they set out to do but from this perspective they gave it their all. And though it is frustrating to see history repeating itself, our lack of faith in South Africa’s ability to conquer its demons will only serve the will of those who seek to defeat the 11 cricketers chosen to represent us on the world stage. We, as their supporters, must and need to help these highly talented sportsmen carry the expectations of a nation.
Graeme Smith has done an excellent job as captain since he took over following the 2003 World Cup, which saw to the end of Shaun Pollock as South Africa’s captain. There are some who have never liked Smith and while they are welcome to their opinions, Smith has done all he can to try make South Africa one of the best cricket teams on the planet. Sure, we fell short again at the World Cup but that doesn’t mean a very good side has turned bad in the space of a few days. Smith should be proud of the legacy, stability, he has left his successor in the ODI set-up. His reward will be more time to focus on his own game as he still has much to offer South Africa in limited-overs cricket.
Rob Houwing, a former editor of SA Sports Illustrated and now chief editor at Sport24 perhaps said it best when it comes to describing how we should feel about the Proteas following the 2011 World Cup: “Still, I don’t believe this South Africa group, who overwhelmingly gave it their all and then some, deserve a rotten-tomato welcome home. Let’s be gentlemen and ladies. Let’s all take it on the conk, just as GC Smith and company are having to. And move on. Or at least bloody try to.”
We haven’t come this far to throw it all away and though the Proteas might be one of the more infuriating teams to be attached to at times, they are our team and whenever they walk on the field they seek to do our country proud. We have changed so much as a nation over the last 17 years, so let’s give our cricketers the same opportunity to change what they don’t like about themselves as well. Let us not let the weeds of disappointment choke our affection for a game and team that brings much joy to the homes of so many of our kin. I will never, ever, stop supporting the Proteas.
One day they will get it right, and when that day comes, we can all rejoice. Until then, never stop trying and never lose hope.